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Nude Sermon: Deeper than Shame is Glory
This sermon comes in response to Ashland’s recent ban on nudity in public places. Thanks to Eric Navickas and Carol Voisin for trying to defend nudity, difficult and edgy though that cause was. Eric’s reasoning and passion inspired me to contribute my art to this event. Thanks to Amy Godard for opening MAda Shell Gallery for nude art, music, and sermon.
Though I came to Ashland in 1986 to be the first minister of the RVUUF (for 8 years) and am fellowshipped with the UUA, I speak here today for myself and God’s Goods. Neither blame nor credit should go to the UU’s.
A copy of my letter to the editor regarding the nudity issue and a sign-up sheet for receiving emails about God’s Goods is available. For more of my writings, go to earthlyreligion.com . When I saw Eric on the cable access channel speak about defending nudity as part of free speech I was innerly inspired to deliver a sermon on nudity in the nude.
I’ll put my body on this line. After I prep the subject with a bit of scripture, I will be disrobing. If you don’t want to see me naked, please listen from the hall. This robe represents the usual religious stance: the body is covered; the spirit is the only good thing. I see this as typical, dualistic, and perverse. I will step out of this robe for religious reasons – to show that who and what we are is not evil and that the only shame is shame itself.
Start of Sermon
Genesis 3:10: “I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
This passage comes from the Garden of Eden story at the front of the Bible, the second of two creations myths often linked together. Myths are neither facts nor lies; they are symbolic stories telling of something true and important in us. What we call the Old Testament is a primal set of books shared by the world’s three theistic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. While I don’t believe the Bible is the “word of God” and so is authoritative and true, it is viewed that way by many. Its creation myths are important because they influence who and how we are.
In Genesis One, located on page one of the Bible, Elohim (a god-name having both singular and plural elements in it as well as male and female) generates all of natural existence in six evolutionary steps, from light to humans, males and females. Crucial in this account is that God declares natural existence as “good.” Light, water, land, plants, animals, and humans are good. All together they are “very good.” I agree with God on this. We are of a precious, lovely, abundant garden.
Then there is another creation myth. The Garden of Eden story is under YHWH (a singular, masculine god name) who creates a garden, Adam, then Eve. These two can enjoy the entire garden and eat of all its fruits except the “tree of knowledge.” If they eat of that tree, that day they die. When they eat of that tree and think they know good and evil like gods do, then they realize they are naked and are ashamed. “I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Sex was not the sin, nor nudity, but judgment was, leading to fear and hiding.
Shame, blame and pain then dominate the story, leading to what we inherit as the concept of “Original Sin.” We are told we are wicked, fallen, suitable for suffering and subservience. We are told the consequence for this is eventual hell, and that the remedy for all this believing in the Christ as a way to be redeemed and saved. What we’re not told is that these punitive judgments are themselves the sin, the mistakes born of a subtle deception that alienates us from our own bodies, each other, our garden and our God. When they ate of it, they died to their own glory, comfort, and companionship.
Augustine in the 4th Century picked up on what Paul had to say about the fall in the Garden of Eden and expanded it, reasoning that if we are sexual we therefore are guilty and in need of the saving grace the church provided in its sacraments. (He had come from the Manichean tradition, which sees pure spirit as good and the flesh as bad.) He was disturbed that his “rebellious member” would rise when it shouldn’t and wouldn’t rise when it should. (Welcome to the occasional male condition, Augustine!) He also declared we are too fallen to govern ourselves and that the bishops and other divinely empowered rulers should rule over us.
I look at these two creation stories as telling a lesson entirely opposite to what Paul, Augustine, and others saw. I see Genesis One as defining what is good (nature, including us) and Genesis Two and Three as showing us that we lose it by judging it. Subtle deceivers trick us out of our original goods by serving up their own goods and evils. Shame, blame, and pain result from our turning away from God’s goods. We fall into alienation when we judge, blame, and shame ourselves and each other merely for being natural human beings. We forget that calling nudity bad is insulting God, who created us in his/her image, blessed us, and called us and all of natural creation “very good.”
In the myth, a cherubim angel with a flaming sword turning in all directions guards the return to the Garden. I take that to be a union of the opposites symbol. It takes bravery to step through accusation into innocence. Back through judgment and scorn, back through all the blame, we have to step if we are to reclaim our God-given earthly glory and goodness. For myself, and on behalf of humanity, I step through the shame and scorn to stand vulnerably before you, honestly and sincerely seeking to plea for our natural goodness as of and for Creation’s glory.
This is what we are, my friends, skin that contains and protects us, soothes and pleases us. Thousands of chemical reactions are intelligently orchestrated on our behalf by our bodies without our ever noticing. Self-repair and self-renewal keep us alive. Hands, feet, eyes – all functioning well, the accumulated “structure of success” inherited from billions of years of evolution – are here for our work and pleasure. Throats to sing, arms to hold, minds that zing, hearts that are bold. What an insult and tragedy to define any part out, to say some parts are bad. I preach against such destructive dualism. I thank and praise all of creation (call it God if you will) for giving us these bodies exactly as they are.
Deeper than shame is glory.
Ashland’s Nude Controversy
I wasn’t surprised by the ban on nudity in Ashland, but I was a bit disappointed in my town, whereas earlier I had been proud of Ashland for taking such oddities in good humor. I didn’t see the naked ladies’ nude protest of the war in Lithia Park, but I was glad it happened and that our town took it in stride. I saw three people politely be asked by the police to put on their clothes at an Art Walk and was proud of them for replying that they had a right to do it. I saw some nude teens on the Plaza one night who told me “We heard you can be naked in Ashland.” “No,” I replied, “you can naked in Oregon as long as you aren’t being lewd or lascivious.” Most theater-goers walked right by without even noticing. Women can bare their breasts because Oregon’s liberal constitution says we can’t discriminate on the basis of sex: If men can go shirtless, so can women. When pretty Gennifer Moss paraded and biked about town nude, I wasn’t just proud of her daring act, I was proud of our town for taking her stride in stride. And when an old guy walked nude too near a school, I wasn’t surprised that many would object.
When all this led to a ban on nudity, I wasn’t distraught, but I was dismayed. Would Ashland, a liberal town, model a law that could grow to all Oregon? I’m glad I left Michigan and came west to Oregon. Other than skinny dipping in the lake at night (which felt so much more flowing than wearing a swim suit) I had never encountered nudity back there. Out here I got to see and feel what it is like to be nude with others. There’s the sauna, the hot springs, the quarry, and the hippies swimming in the river on a hot day. I got to overcome my unease at being seen, and I saw that bodies come in all sorts and shapes. In a way, no one looks that good, and no one looks that bad.
Nudity transcends sexuality. I love the reassuring slogan of the hippies: “No body shame.” Nudity in some situations is improper. It can be rude and needlessly provoking. It pops people’s propriety and rouses up their irate indignation. Some people have never seen or heard of nudity in public. Fear and resentment mounts. Old wounds and anxieties flood the emotional and rational brains of many. Some will live their whole lives without ever feeling proud or comfortable in their own skin.
I don’t blame people for being reserved, anxious, or afraid regarding social nudity. They haven’t had a chance to get used to it like many of us have. It seems shocking and wrong to them. I don’t blame them for that reaction, but it is a reaction born of assumptions that usually have no reference or familiarity. I don’t blame people for such reactions, but I would ask that they consider when and how such reactions themselves are as or more damaging than the perceived offence.
As with hay fever or poison oak, the reactions create more injury than the pollen or oak. “I was afraid because I was naked and I hid.” Isn’t this where we are together as a culture? Do fear and hiding foster democracy? Democracy needs authenticity and free expression. Freud once said that “civilization if built of sublimation.” Maybe that’s what’s wrong with our culture; we shame and sublimate our natural selves and instead create a society comfortable with pain, suffering, and alienation.
If there is anything stronger than our interest in sexuality, it is our propensity to be easily shamed about it. We have covered our God-given sense of morality and responsibility with the shallow judgments of anti-sexuality, piously flouting and inflicting that reactive stance on ourselves and each other as if that’s what makes us moral. Having cut ourselves out of the garden we go on to make an alienated, harsh world.
Consider Janet Jackson’s boob. For one-half second at two hundred yards, she deliberately flashed her breast. Irate indignation soared. Should children ever be allowed to see nipples? What would the children think if they saw a nipple? Are nipples dangerous? Colin Powell’s son levied a huge fine. Yet that same season children by the droves were taken to see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” where two hours of up-close torture was used to teach them that this happened for them, to fix their sins.
Consider on TV how a breast or a butt is blurred out while a gun or knife is highlighted as entertainment. Swear words are bleeped out while hateful words rile. We Americans see hundreds of references to murder every week, but hardly ever do we see nudity or any good sex. Consider that girl child in Vietnam running in terror away from the horror of war. You could see her innocent and vulnerable vagina. Should that be allowed? Which upset you more, her vagina or the anguished terror and pleading in her face? What you couldn’t see was the blasted and napalmed bodies of her family and friends back in the village in the shadows. You couldn’t see that Colin Powell was an information officer then, keeping all the Mai Lai’s and the many Tiger Delta Force atrocities out of our attention.
Consider the history of the nude in art. Depictions of the Garden of Eden always have a convenient leaf or shag of hair covering the most vital and interesting parts of Eve and Adam. Whatever is most alluring is most forbidden. But old Christian art often showed the nipples of Mary or the penis of Jesus to highlight their innocent God-given humanity. Then it changed, and in the medieval ages no nakedness was to be seen in church except in depictions of the sadistic tortures of hell. There, sex justifies violence. Recently, when touching up the sumptuous paintings in Washington D.C.’s Library of Congress, the nipples of the women were simply painted out, blurred. Down the street, our chief law officer, John Ashcroft, paid some $18,000 to hide the bronze statue of Lady Justice because of her embarrassing breasts. While justice was hidden, habeas corpus began to be denied, and torture began to be rationalized and inflicted.
Consider finally the various models of governance and sexuality around the world. In some lands, moralistic theocrats rule sternly, punishing sexual behavior with whipping, stoning, and public execution. In other places, a humanistic exploration of tolerance and “live and let live” prevails. In Amsterdam you can’t walk your dog in the park because of the poop it might drop, but you can make love there and be watched if you want. In some places, men own and boss the women, calling any woman who dares walk alone at night a whore suitable for rape. In other places, women are allowed to pick lovers beyond their husbands. They are allowed this because they are loved, and what they do benefits the community.
As a generalization, I think it is valid to correlate a repressive stance towards our bodies and sexuality with violence, while those societies which are tolerant and celebratory of our bodies and sexuality are far less violent. Which way is our recent ban on nudity taking us?
When Augustine argued that because we are sexual it shows that we are bad and fit to be ruled by bishops and other rulers, John Chrysostom argued that government belongs not to an emperor alone, but to the human race as a whole. “God honored our race with sovereignty,” he reminded us. Not imperial force, but concord, justice, and liberty should prevail, like God built us to have. It took eons for this democratic value to be claimed and implemented in our western world.
I’m not surprised that when pushed to it, Ashland banned nudity. I was however dismayed that when Counselor Navickas tried to allow for some exceptions to that rule, it was denied. Must a frightened majority decide against all cases and places? Wouldn’t a more enlightened and fair democracy allow for exceptions to the rule to be explored? Couldn’t there be special places and times where people could find out what it is like to see nudes or be nude themselves? Must the city side with a moral position to the exclusion and outlawing of all variation from it? The old precedent of swimming nude at the Fairy Ponds up-creek from the park has now been outlawed. On this issue and many others I wish our vision of a “live and let live” democracy would honor the minority while “protecting” the majority.
That said, I also admit and appreciate it that we can celebrate the nude here in public. Here I am standing naked in a public gallery without it being a riled issue. No police have come to arrest me. Plus, our town is creative and innovative. The arts and freedom of expression have old roots here.
We’ll find more ways to express our faith in our own bodies in our democratic community. Without offending or frightening, we will explore ways to fully be who we really are. Instead of “I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself,” we can remember and return to just before the fall when “they were both naked and not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). I have walked through the flaming sword turning in all directions and found I am not ashamed. Let this be our turning point. I shunt the scorn and drop the shame. I ignore without mocking their confused goods and evils in order to honor the original goods declared by God. I reject Original Sin and affirm the Original Goods.
Let us all return to the God-given goodness described in Genesis One. Let us remember and reunite with the primal goods of Genesis One, a natural creation, with males and females, blessed and declared by God as good, very good. Deeper than shame is glory.
© January 29, 2010
(See 5-part video on You Tube at “NudeRobedIntroand Scripture”, and parts 1,2,3,and 4 of “NudeUnrobedPart1” (etc.) June 15, 2010